Aral (Aralsk in Russian) is the gateway town to the remains of the Aral Sea on the side of Kazakhstan. Much like Moynaq on the Uzbek side, there are ship graveyards and jeep tours as well as a small museum for those interested in having a closer look at the Aral Sea catastrophe.
The story of Aral starts with the building of the railway from Orenburg to Tashkent. Upon completion of the railway in 1905, then-Aralsk was populated by Bessarabian fishermen who migrated there from the Danube delta.
The harbour of Aral is situated just south of the centre on Makataev street. It offers some rusty cranes and bits and pieces of boats. The main ship graveyard is a 15 minute walk from the old harbour, where you can find a number of shipwrecks lying in the desert, silent witness to the death of the Aral Sea.
63 km away from Aral lies the Zhalanash ship cemetery. At the moment, there are 4 boats left at Zhalanash. They are however, gradually being taken apart. Zhalanash is a camel-farming town, which still makes for picturesque shots with the camels in front of the ships.
Aral Sea shore and Kokaral dam
The Kokaral dam is what keeps the Northern Aral Sea from depleting completely. If driving solo, head in the direction of Kyzylorda, then turn right after 80 km to Kambash. You will pass Lake Kambash, Amanotkel and Bogen. You pass a bridge crossing the Syr Darya after about 180 km from the start.
From there on, the restoration part starts: salt-resistant saxaul line the road, and after another 20 km you come to the entrance to the Kokaral dam. The Aral Sea here looks more like a wetland, with a small shell beach and a few little boats (in the water!). A river flows from the dam to the Southern Aral Sea, which is still fighting for its life.
Barsa-Kelmes, Kazalinsk and desert sights
Barsa-Kelmes was once an island in the sea but now a plateau in the desert where a number of near-extinct species survive. You can visit, but it is not part of a standard tour.
Kazalinsk was the first big port on the Aral Sea with shipyards and fishing cooperatives, with a big population of Old Believer Cossacks that persists to this day. The Russian town is apparently very well-preserved, since it never grew beyond its original size of 7000 inhabitants. We say apparently: access is restricted because of its proximity to Baikonur, so we haven’t been to check.
In the desert, you can find more ship wrecks, a hot spring, surprising elevations, and local fauna and flora like samphire and saxaul.
NGO Aral Tenizi is still organizing homestays, this is your best bet. Gulmira’s place has a comfortable room and friendly host, 3 meals a day, hot showers and heating for 3500 tenge per person.
With the demise of hotel Aibek, there is 1 hotel left in town: Hotel Aral (Makataev 4). Price is 4000 tenge for one or 2 persons. It looks terrible, the AC “works” and checkout is at 8am. You can take a shower and sauna next door in the fitness club. A ‘suite’ with hot water costs 7000 tenge.
The local museum traces the rise and fall of life on the shore of the Aral Sea with a focus on ethnography, ecology, industry and local artists’ work.
- Opening hours: 9 – 12 and 15 – 18 Monday to Saturday
- Admission 200 tenge
- Address: corner of Tokey Esetov and Abulkhair Khan streets
Aral Tenizi is an NGO based in Aral, working to restore the Aral Sea and the broken economy of Aral. They can organise a day tour that takes in many or all of the places mentioned above, including a boat trip on the Aral Sea.
Contact Serik at +7 701 662 71 63, +7 705 449 37 32, +7 72433 2 22 56 or [email protected]